Not For Everyone

Acupuncture doesn’t seem to work for everyone, but slightly more than half of patients with moderate OA will experience some benefit, says pain specialist James N. Dillard, MD, former medical director of Columbia University’s Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  

Dr. Dillard believes that acupuncture is superior to corticosteroid injections, a common treatment for OA, and just as effective as frequently prescribed drugs such as duloxetine and tramadol. “And it’s incredibly safe,” he adds.

Side effects, such as bleeding and bruising, are uncommon. By contrast, notes Dr. Dillard, many patients can’t tolerate non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other OA medications. “The adverse side effects a patient may have with those drugs are way, way worse,” he says.

If you decide to try acupuncture, ask your doctor for a referral or check with an organization such as the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (www.medicalacupuncture.org). Find out if a practitioner is licensed and ask what type of acupuncture he or she practices.

There are several forms of the therapy, including electroacupuncture, in which needles are connected to wires that deliver a mild electrical current. (Electroacupuncture generates a greater release of pain-blunting neurochemicals, according to some practitioners.) Some health insurance plans cover the cost of acupuncture. If it isn't covered under your plan, expect to pay anywhere from $60 to $150 per session.

Certain forms of OA may respond better than others to acupuncture. Patients with OA of the knee and spine appear to have the most success, says rheumatologist Scott Zashin, MD, a clinical assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas.

Dr. Zashin, who practices electroacupuncture on occasion, says it can take three or more sessions before symptoms begin to improve and that benefits usually last a month or so, after which follow-up treatment is necessary. He believes that acupuncture can provide important pain relief as part of an overall plan for managing OA.

Adds Dr. Zashin: “I think we should be using it more often.”